Sunday, 27 December 2015

Mark Pagel: Human evolution's creative drive

A 2013 interview with Mark:

Joe Henrich: The Secret of Our Success

Here's a 4 minute promotional video for Joe Henrich's recent book on cultural evolution, "The Secret of Our Success":

Saturday, 26 December 2015

Cultural recapitulation theory

Recapitulation theory refers to the idea that organism development recapitulates evolutionary history. As Ernst Haeckel's put it, "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny". Most biologists would describe Haeckel's ideas as being widely discredited. The story of Haeckel doctoring his embryo illustrations to support recapitulation theory has been widely retold.

Recapitulation theory encapsulates a rather simple truth - that development often proceeds by strapping on extra developmental phases. When this happens, ontogeny does indeed recapitulate phylogeny.

The brain makes a simple example. Brains are divided into layers, and over evolutionary time, more layers have been added.The human neocortex, for example consists of six layers. During development the neural layers are formed progressively. Migrating neurons climb up a scaffolding made of radial glial cells and bypass previous layers of neurons in the cerebral cortex, creating a new layer on top of their predecessors. This mirrors development over evolutionary time - where ancestors had fewer layers of neurons.

A simple, pure example of cultural recapitulation theory can be found in knot theory. Knots are often formed by tying knows on top of other knots. The simpler knots come first historically as well as during knot construction. A reef knot is a simple example of one knot being tied on top of another knot in order to strengthen it.

The concept of "cultural recapitulation" is often used in another way. Some say that the way that individual learning mirrors historical discovery is a case of cultural recapitulation. For example, the order in which scientific concepts are taught to children might mirror the order in which they are discovered. This is certainly recapitulation and it does involve culture, but the analogy with Ernst Haeckel's idea is weaker than with the knot example I gave. The reason is that the development involved is the development of a young animal - a memetic host rather than a memetic product. The corresponding biological analogy would be if the way in which organisms were infected with pathogens reflect the sequence in which those pathogens evolved. If is easy to imagine reasons why that might be true - for example new pathogens might be less expert at spreading to new hosts. However, this seems a bit different to classical recapitulation theory - since that does not normally involve symbiosis.

Will cultural recapitulation theory suffer the same fate as its organic counterpart? It is, perhaps too early to tell. However, maybe cultural recapitulation theory will help to revitalize recapitulation theory in the organic domain. It is a bit of a shame that recapitulation theory is so widely labelled as a dud idea. Perhaps cultural examples will help to illuminate the truth at the core of the idea.

Friday, 25 December 2015

Towards a Science of Culture within a Darwinian Evolutionary Framework

There is a series of videos dating from June 2015 with this title:

Alex goes first, the other scientists reply and respond and then Alex responds at the end. There's also a playlist.

Sunday, 20 December 2015

The continuing rise of the "meme" meme

In 2011, I declared 2011 to be the year of the meme - showing graphs of the "meme" meme over time as evidence.

Later, in my 2011 book on memetics I published a graph showing the explosive growth of the "meme" meme over time.

Rounding off 2015 seems like an appropriate moment to revisit these graphs. Here are up-to-date versions:

History of "Meme" searches (with news information)

History of "Memes" searches (with news information)

The spectacular growth of the "meme" meme has continued. The term "meme" has long eclipsed the term "gene" on the internet - a sign of the coming memetic takeover. The popularity of the term "meme" bodes well for the future of memetics, I think.

Wednesday, 9 December 2015

The virtues of intelligent design

Intelligent design creationism is famously opposed by evolutionists. However, few criticize the idea of intelligent design by humans. I think it is normally taken for grated that engineers have brains and so can intelligently design things.

Enter Matt Ridley. Matt characterizes intelligent design by humans as a form of creationism, and recently wrote a whole book, The Evolution of Everything, documenting its failures. Economies, religions, politics, companies and governments are all places where Matt sees this "creationism" - and its poor performance. I don't remember a single positive comment about intelligent design in the whole book.

As an antidote, I feel inclined to offer a brief summary of why intelligent design by humans is a useful tool. This didn't make it into my review - but I'm putting it here instead.

One of the tools of intelligent design is virtual prototyping. This involves constructing models in a virtual world and evaluating them there. This results in a rapid build-test cycle, low construction costs, and failures which are inexpensive.

A common construction technique among engineers is known as "rapid prototyping". This typically involves building and testing small models before constructing the final object. The virtual prototyping that takes place in the minds of intelligent agents is very similar to this "rapid prototyping" - and it has many of the same benefits associated with it.

Intelligent design is a form of evolution in which mutation and merging operations take place within a single mind. This rich environment permits a wider range of mutation and merging operations. The recombination operations include interpolation and extrapolation. This, ultimately, results in enhanced evolutionary dynamics: faster evolution and better ability to avoid getting stuck on local optima.

Intelligent design by humans does have some problems and limitations. In particular, human minds are small, have little storage. They are irrational and difficult to program. The virtual worlds they simulate are sometimes unrealistic and sometimes delusional.

However, rather than lamenting these problems, we can work on them. We can work on building bigger, better, faster minds, with access to more memory, and greater skills at performing inductive inference. Rather than relinquishing intelligent design as Ridley recommends we can improve it - using machine intelligence.

Monday, 7 December 2015

My review of The Evolution of Everything is up

My review of The Evolution of Everything is up. It is titled: "A demonization of intelligent design". Check it out.

Rather to my surprise, I found quite a bit to disagree with in Matt's book. In my humble opinion, the basic problem is that Matt didn't take on the ideas described in Keeping Darwin in Mind. This leads him to regard intelligent design by human designers as a form of creationism - making it a foe to be vanquished. I don't think that this is a very well-balanced perspective.

I have long thought that the idea of incorporating intelligent design into Darwinism might cause some people to choke. So far, to the best of my knowledge, only Matt Ridley and Daniel Dennett seem to have got into problems in this area. Ridley seems to be having more problems than Dennett did.

If you liked this one, feel free to check out my other book reviews.

Saturday, 5 December 2015

The teaching first hypothesis

Most accounts of the origin of human cultural evolution focus on imitation or social learning. However there's another possibility - that the most relevant changes were in teaching ability - or inclination to teach.

The scenario I favor relating to the origin of social learning in humans involves walking. This scenario is described in my essay walking made us human. Walking is a socially-transmitted trait. Learning it promptly is extremely important for modern humans. Walking is also widely taught to offspring by their parents. This observation suggests another scenario for the early cultural evolution of humans - in which changes in teaching ability are more significant than changes in learning ability.

Teaching ability is easier to change via cultural evolution than infant learning ability is. It is probably easier to change via DNA gene evolution too. Since the trait looks as though it is probably easier to modify, there's at least a fair chance that the main difference between the early walkers and the non-walkers was that the walkers put more effort into teaching their offspring.

Teaching is not involved in all types of cultural transmission. However it is involved in transmission of walking. Acceptance of the scenario described in Walking made us human makes this "teaching first" hypothesis more likely.

The focus on learning seems fairly ubiquitous among students of cultural evolution to me. Susan Blackmore in The Meme Machine promoted the importance of imitation. Lee Alan Dugatkin reviewed Susan's book and then went on to write The Imitation Factor. While both books are excellent, if the teaching first hypothesis is correct then an emphasis on imitation may be misplaced.

Can we test the idea? The detailed history is probably lost in he mists of time. However, we can probably test the idea that teaching ability is easier for cultural and genetic evolution to produce. If so, the teaching first hypothesis becomes favored by Occam's razor - conditional on the ideas described in walking made us human.

More meme denialism

There are still a lot of people who are totally confused about cultural evolution. Whether due to ignorance, stupidity, bad teaching, or whatever, there are still lots of people who just don't get it. They are still on the wrong side of the meme paradigm shift.

We can say these people lack meme literacy. Or we can describe them as being meme challenged. However, sometimes, a bit more of a verbal kick in the ass seems desirable. If people are particularly ignorant of the literature, seem to think they are entitled to spout nonsense on the topic, and fail to update on evidence, the term 'meme denialism' may be appropriate.

I think the term should be reserved for the worst offenders. So, I'm thinking that Steven Pinker and Massimo Pigliucci are in denial about memes, while Peter Richerson and Rob Boyd are more in the 'minor misunderstandings' zone.

When Helena Cronin says:

There's culture; there's history; there's change; there's progress; there's technological innovation; there's growth of knowledge; there's social learning; and there's lots more. But there's no cultural evolution.

That's a nice example of what I'm talking about: complete denial of the whole field of study.

Another example comes from John Gray, writing:

There is no general theory of evolution.

Another case is Jonathan Marks (2000):

Now unlike genes, memes have the decided disadvantage of not actually existing.
This is what meme denialism looks like.

Update: I previously wrote about meme denialism here.

Thursday, 3 December 2015

Matt Ridley: How New Ideas Emerge

The blurb says: "Streamed live on Dec 3, 2015". You may want to fast-forwards to get to Matt's talk.

One notable moment is where Matt receives an audience question about whether his ideas are falsifiable at around 1:20:00. Note that the YouTube user involved edited and re-uploaded the video after I watched it - so you may find that the relevant section of the Q&A session has been moved or is missing.

Matt was also interviewed recently by CNBC's Rick Santelli here.

Matt answers questions about The Evolution of the USA here.

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

Creative destruction

It is easier to destroy than it is to create. If similar efforts expended on creation and destruction, the destructive change is often are bigger - sometimes much bigger. So: those who seek leverage should seriously consider destruction as an option.

I've written about the possibility of positive destruction - in my 2010 positive destruction article.

In the context of cultural evolution, creative destruction typically involves destroying memes, preferably bad memes.

This is partly the job of promoters of skepticism and rationality. As an example, both Dawkins and Dennett have had a go at sabotaging religious memes. I have often expressed puzzlement at this behaviour - since religious though has been widely discredited by scientists. Scientists attacking Abrahamic religions in modern times look a bit strange - since those religions have not been scientifically credible for a long time now. Scientifically, they are a dead issue. However, maybe, by taking advantage of the power of destruction, they are still doing some good.

I identified some other bad causes in my 2010 'bad causes' video. However, I didn't really link my conclusions up with those of the positive destruction essay. Top of my list at the time was climate change. Reviewing the topic five years later, climate change is still my number one bad cause. I don't think I have ever seen so many resources and time frittered away on such a worthless and ineffectual cause. Experts on cause prioritization seem to fairly uniformly agree that climate change is not a high priority. How then to explain the wasted billions?

One of the most obvious explanations is that fear sells. Global warming alarmists are fear-mongering. I also think that virtue signaling explains a lot about the irrational global warming hysteria. The cause offers people a chance to save the world - a well-known superstimulus to do-gooders. Trying to save the world shows that you care a lot.

Maybe global warming alarmism has enough detractors for it to no longer be low hanging fruit for critics. However it is still pretty fat - and fat targets are often attractive.

If so, the efforts of Matt Ridley and Bjorn Lomborg (among others) may prove to have been especially welcome.

I am especially disappointed with the role that many scientists have played in the fiasco. Like Matt Ridley, I see the climate wars especially indicative of scientific funding bias. Ridley explains the problem in What the climate wars did to science. Scientists should be the first to speak up in a situation like this. A few scientists have done this = but overall, this is not what we have seen. It is a big embarrassment to those who want to proudly call themselves scientists.